For the past seven years, since my daughter was five, she and I have attended the Spirit Rock Meditation Center’s annual Family Retreat (www.spiritrock.org). My initial impulse for taking her was to expose her to Buddhism and pass on some moral/spiritual training to her, since I haven’t practiced any traditional Western religious faith since I left the Catholic Church as a teenager.
The issue of how to raise your kids with spiritual values is one a lot of us face in this time of great spiritual change in our culture. I didn’t want to raise her in some religion that I didn’t believe in, and yet, having no religion seems like not the greatest starting point. She actually went to a Jewish preschool even though we aren’t Jewish, and I was pleased that she learned some of that tradition and was in an environment that fostered positive values in an ancient context.
Spirit Rock, where I now teach a monthly Dharma and Recovery class, is a very open, Westernized Buddhist center. It was founded by Westerners and is mostly populated by them (us). Before the first Family Retreat I attended, I’d taken my daughter to many of their Family Days, so I had an idea what to expect: lots of singing, some skits, and a little meditation, followed by the kids going off with counselors while parents stay with the teachers and get in some sitting and more serious Dharma teachings.
On that first retreat with a five-year-old, I discovered that the retreat really was a retreat. The first day was very tough. My daughter was restless, tired, and didn’t like the food. In the meditation hall she wouldn’t sit still (surprise, surprise) even for the 45-second meditations. In our little room, she slept on the floor and I on a bed, all our stuff crowded into this small space. By the end of the day I was stressed, frustrated, and wondering what I was doing there.
The next day things began to smooth out. I met some great parents, started getting into the music that was played in the courtyard before each session, and my daughter started to get into the spirit of things—she was having fun. At some point that day I thought, “This is just like a ‘real’ retreat. The first day was a difficult settling in, and now the second day is getting easier.” As the retreat unfolded, there were a lot of ups and downs, but I began to hold it all in the realm of retreat practice.
This year, it occurred to me during the retreat, that this annual event has been one of the most important ones in the development of my practice. What makes it a retreat, and what makes it practice, is that everything that happens, externally and internally, is held in the context of the Dharma. My usual reactivity gets highlighted because I’m bringing that awareness in. Impermanence, suffering, acceptance, and lovingkindness are constant themes. Besides that each year there is a formal theme for the retreat. This year is was “Equanimity.” There were songs, Dharma talks, skits, and discussions all focused on the topic. With that kind of immersion, there’s a real deepening of practice, of engagement with the Dharma.
As we try to integrate Buddhism, or any spiritual practice, into our lives, finding ways to become more seamless in practice is vital. For years I had the idea that my “practice” was sitting in meditation. I imagined that once I became “enlightened” that I would just feel like I was in deep meditation all the time, that my “practice” would somehow just take over. The result was that after a retreat I would have a grace period of a couple weeks where I’d feel very connected, but then it would fade and I’d just accept that the normal state of semi-consciousness was impossible to change. For some years I tried to figure out how to move beyond this, but it was actually when I began my teacher training that something shifted.
Our Community Dharma Leader (CDL) retreats were the first time that I was in a retreat environment without silence. We did a couple hours of meditation each day, and the rest of the time we studied, heard talks, did interactive exercises, and got to know each other. During these retreats I started to get a taste of what living a mindful life meant. Because I was in a retreat environment and with other committed practitioners, I tended to be more awake and aware and to view my experience through the lens of Dharma. So, if a strong emotion came up, rather than being reactive, I would look at it, hold it, explore it, and let it go. And because I was interacting with people, lots of normal egoic reactions appeared. Instead of being in the protective cocoon of a silent retreat, I was encountering all sorts of things that were common to my life. So I started developing many more skills for mindful living.
The Family Retreat is another form of retreat that allows for this kind of experience. What’s even more rich about the Family Retreat is the abundance of love. That first retreat I found after a couple days that I was falling in love with the other parents’ kids. This was a first for me, this huge open-heartedness that spread beyond me and my immediate circle. The music, too, is very heart-opening. And the sense of community and shared values is a powerful support.
I still believe that there is no substitute for intensive, silent retreat practice. Certain qualities get developed and insights get revealed in that context that you can’t get anywhere else. If you want to have a deep meditation practice, you need this. But we are beginning to see that other forms are also important. On my own Buddhism/12 Step retreats, I’ve tried to take these lessons as guides to structuring the day. While we have considerably more silence than a Family Retreat, we also integrate periods of discussion and sharing that aren’t available on the typical Vipassana retreat. All of these forms are tools for spiritual growth, and exploring different forms and practicing in different ways is a huge support to uncovering and healing the many aspects of the heart and mind that need care and cultivation.